The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob
He wore a Western hat, never spoke a word, and robbed bank after bank. When the feds finally arrested him, they discovered that their suspect was actually a soft-spoken woman. They thought they’d never hear from her again— but she had other plans.
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PEGGY JO TALLAS WAS, BY ALL ACCOUNTS, the classic good-hearted Texas woman. For much of her adult life, she lived with her ailing mother in a small apartment in the Dallas suburbs. Every morning, after waking up and making her bed, always taking the time to smooth out all the wrinkles in the sheets with her hands, she’d walk into her mother’s bedroom. She’d wrap a robe around her mother’s shoulders, lead her to the kitchen, fix her cereal, and lay out her pills. For a few minutes, the two of them would sit at the table, making small talk. Peggy Jo, who didn’t like to eat until later in the day, would often smoke a cigarette and drink Pepsi out of a coffee cup. Then, after her mother was finished eating, Peggy Jo would gently guide her back to her bedroom, prop a pillow behind her head, set a glass of tap water and her romance novel on the side table, and walk back into her own room to get dressed.
Usually, she liked wearing khaki pants, a simple blouse, and loafers. But on a lovely morning in May 1991, Peggy Jo, who was then 46 years old, decided to wear something different. She walked over to her dresser, the top of which held a few small glass sculptures of dolphins with iridescent eyes that she had been collecting off and on for more than a decade. She opened one of the lower drawers and pulled out a pair of men’s pants and a dark men’s shirt. From her closet, she grabbed a men’s brown leather jacket that she kept on a hanger. She then reached for a Styrofoam mannequin’s head that was on a shelf in the closet. A fake beard was pinned to it and on top was a white cowboy hat.
She took off her nightshirt and put on the clothes along with some boots that were too big for her feet. She stuffed a towel under her shirt to make herself look heavier. She stepped into the bathroom, rubbed some adhesive across her face, pasted on the fake beard, and colored her hair with gray paint she had bought at a costume shop. She placed the cowboy hat on her head, put on a large pair of silver-rimmed sunglasses, and pulled on a pair of gloves. She then took a few minutes to write a note on a sheet of lined paper and put it in her pocket.
“Be back in a minute,” Peggy Jo told her mother, tiptoeing past her room. She walked outside, got behind the wheel of her 1975 two-door Pontiac Grand Prix, drove to the American Federal Bank just off West Airport Freeway in Irving, pulled into the parking lot, stepped into the bank’s lobby, and headed toward the counter, where a young female teller was smiling cheerfully.
“Hello, sir,” the teller said. “How may I help you?”
Peggy Jo pulled out the note she had written. “This is a bank robbery,” it read. “Give me your money. No marked bills or dye packs.”
The stunned teller handed over a stack of cash from her drawer. Peggy Jo nodded, stuck the money into a satchel, and walked out of the bank. She then drove straight back to her apartment, where her mother was still in bed, getting hungry, hoping Peggy Jo would return soon to fix her lunch.
IN THE CRIMINOLOGY TEXTBOOKS, they are invariably described as products of a deprived socioeconomic background. Most of them are young male drug addicts who don’t have the slightest idea what they are doing. When they burst into banks, their fingers twitch and their heads swivel back and forth as they look for security guards. They shout out threats and wave guns in the air. When they get their money, they run madly for the exits, bowling over anyone in their path, and they squeal away in their cars, leaving tire tracks on the road.
And then there was Peggy Jo Tallas. “I promise you, my Aunt Peggy was the last person on earth you would ever imagine robbing a bank,” said her niece, Michelle. “Whenever I was in a car with her, she never drove above the speed limit. If anything, she drove below it. And she always came to a complete stop at stop signs.”
But Peggy Jo didn’t just rob a bank. Beginning with that May 1991 trip to American Federal, she robbed lots of banks. According to the FBI, she was one of the most unusual bank robbers of her generation, a modern-day Bonnie without a Clyde who always worked alone, never using a partner to operate as her lookout or drive her getaway car. She was also a master of disguise, her cross-dressing outfits so carefully designed that law enforcement officials, studying bank surveillance tapes, had no idea they were chasing a woman. What’s more, she was so determined not to hurt anyone that she never carried a weapon into any bank she robbed. “I have to admit, I admired her style,” said Steve Powell, a former FBI agent who spent most of his thirty-year career chasing bank robbers and who supervised bank robbery investigations for the Dallas office of the FBI in the early nineties. “She knew how to get in and out of a bank in sixty seconds. She was very skilled and very efficient, as good as any man I’ve ever come across.”
Although female bank robbers are not unheard of—it is estimated that women commit less than 5 percent of the some 7,600 bank robberies that take place each year in the United States—almost all of them are young women who, like most of the men, rob banks for drug money. And only a few of those women rob more than a bank or two before they quit or get caught. Accordingly, when Powell and his team of FBI agents happened to corner Peggy Jo near her apartment in 1992, they assumed they would never be dealing with her again. She was one of those women, they believed, who had succumbed to a strange bout of middle-aged craziness. She wasn’t poor. She wasn’t an addict or an alcoholic. And from what people who knew her said, she was utterly harmless—“A sweet lady who once chatted with me about the best way to grow plants on the front porch,” one neighbor noted. Seemingly repentant, Peggy Jo pleaded guilty to bank robbery and quietly went off to prison for almost three years. And that seemed to be that.
But then, this past May, the story broke that a small bank in the East Texas city of Tyler had been robbed by a sixty-year-old woman. The woman was dressed in black, wearing a black wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses that covered much of her face. She was polite and did not use a gun when she confronted the teller. She placed the money she received in a black satchel, nodded “thank you,” walked out the door, and climbed into a twenty-foot Frontier RV with pretty purple shades around the windows. She turned on the ignition, pushed on the gas pedal, and headed south on Texas Highway 69, straight out of town.
After all those years, Peggy Jo Tallas had returned.
IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND HER, her friends say, you’ve got to go back to Dallas in the late fifties, when she was an irrepressibly free-spirited teenager, her hair brownish-blond and curly and her green eyes as shiny as marbles. “She had a beautiful, wide smile that made you want to smile back at her,” said Karen Jones, her closest childhood friend. “And what was most special about her was that she loved doing things other kids didn’t do. She once drove me around looking for stray dogs to adopt. And then she took me over to the Yellow Belly drag strip just to watch the cars race.”
She was the youngest of three children. When she was four years old, her father died of cancer, and her mother, Helen, found a job as a nurse’s aide to support the family. They lived in a tiny rent house in the suburb of Grand Prairie. Peggy Jo’s sister, Nancy, was a high school majorette, and her older brother, Pete, played on the district’s championship basketball team. Peggy Jo, however, dropped out of high school after the tenth grade. “She told me there was just too much else to do in life than spend so many days at school,” Karen said. One day, in fact, Peggy Jo jumped in her car and drove to San Francisco because she wanted to see what life was like there. When she returned, she gave Karen a book of poems written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the co-founder of San Francisco’s famous City Lights bookstore and an influential Beat poet whose work often decried the emptiness of modern life. (In one of his most famous poems, from A Coney Island of the Mind, he described America as a country of “. . . freeways fifty lanes wide/on a concrete continent/spaced with bland billboards/illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.”) “I laughed and thought, ‘Of all people, Peggy Jo’s been off reading poetry in San Francisco,’” Karen said. “But that was just who she was, always ready for an adventure.”
When she was in her twenties, Peggy Jo got her own apartment in North Dallas and started working as a receptionist at a Marriott hotel near downtown. She and another receptionist, a cute blonde named Cherry Young, went out almost every night. Peggy Jo always drove in her little burgundy Fiat, gunning the engine, racing other cars from stoplight to stoplight. They hit all the great Dallas nightclubs: Soul City, the Fog, and the Filling Station, on Greenville Avenue, ordering Coors, playing pool, and flirting with men. They went to see the Doors and the Doobie Brothers and even the Rolling Stones, screaming at the top of their lungs as a young, wrinkle-free Mick Jagger gyrated madly across the stage. Peggy Jo took Cherry to a coffeehouse where amateur poets read out of their notebooks, and they also went to see movies. Peggy Jo’s favorite, which she saw over and over, was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the movie tells the story of the famous bank- and train-robbing duo who lived in the last days of the Old West: two good-natured, Robin Hood—like outlaws who never believed that what they were doing was wrong because they never hurt innocent bystanders and they always robbed from institutions that took advantage of downtrodden citizens. Although Butch and Sundance knew they had little chance of survival, they refused to walk away from the life they loved, and they ended up in South America, still robbing banks, finally dying in a hail of gunfire.
According to Cherry, Peggy Jo didn’t have any immediate plans to get married and have children, she didn’t care about finding the right career, and she didn’t worry about money. All she wanted was enough to get by, to pay her bills and have a little left over for a few drinks or a couple of meals each week at El Fenix. “She told me she was saving a little so that she could someday go to Mexico, just to live on the beach in a hacienda and wear bathing suits night and day,” Cherry said. “She was beautiful and she was rambunctious. She always told me that deep down she was wild at heart.”
But just how wild? One afternoon, when Peggy Jo and Cherry were driving around in the Fiat, they passed a Wells Fargo armored truck, and Peggy Jo made a rather odd comment: “You know, I could go rob that and not have to worry about anything for a while.”
“You’d need a gun,” Cherry said.
“Oh, heck, I’m smarter than that,” Peggy Jo replied.
Cherry laughed. It never once occurred to her that Peggy Jo would ever work up the courage to commit an actual robbery. True, she could get a little feisty: When a police officer pulled her over one evening for speeding, she laughed and tore up the ticket in his face. And there was the night when she and Cherry had a spat at a restaurant in Fort Worth. To calm down, Cherry walked to another bar. A few minutes later, Peggy Jo walked outside and saw an unlocked pickup with the keys in the ignition. She jumped in and drove away. The police caught up with her, and she eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, receiving a five-year probated sentence.
Still, it’s one thing to go on a joyride in a stolen car after a night of drinking. It’s another thing entirely to become an outlaw. “And what everyone needs to remember is that my aunt was a wonderful, loving woman,” said Michelle (who asked that her last name not be used). “When she came over to babysit me and my brothers, she made up funny games for us to play, she cooked us popcorn, and then at the end of the night, she told us ghost stories, where the ghosts were always creaking up the stairs and doors were squeaking. She truly had a heart of gold.”
HER LIFE WAS NOT without disappointment, of course. In the mid-seventies, she told her friends she had fallen in love with a man who lived near Dallas. Then, several months later, she mentioned that the relationship was over. “She told me that she had gone to the town where the man lived and that she had seen his car parked in front of a business,” Karen said. “She said she then saw a woman getting into the driver’s seat. Peggy Jo walked up to the woman, asked her what she was doing, and the woman said, ‘Well, ma’am, this is my husband’s car.’ Peggy Jo was completely devastated. She had no idea she had been dating a married man.”
Not long after that, she moved into an apartment in Irving to live with her mother, who was battling a degenerative bone disease. Peggy Jo found a new job near the apartment at a computer factory, and then she worked in the office of a mobile-home construction company. She remained friends with Cherry, who by then was working as a cocktail waitress. “Every now and then, we’d have an old-fashioned night and hit all the old places and listen to rock and roll,” Cherry said. “And one day she called and persuaded me to quit my job so that we could go to Florida and live for a couple of months on the beach.”
But by 1980 Cherry had married and moved to Oklahoma City. Peggy Jo’s childhood friend Karen had also married. Peggy Jo, who was still quite attractive, with a slender body and, in the words of Karen, “movie star long legs,” certainly had plenty of chances to start another relationship, but she kept her distance from men. “I don’t think she was ever able to get over the pain of the betrayal from the married man,” Karen said. “I think she decided to be alone.”
A year passed, then another, then another. And suddenly, just like that, it was 1984, and Peggy Jo was forty years old, with lines tracking out from the corners of her eyes and a touch of gray slipping into her hair. She found another job working for the Pony Express Courier Service, driving a van up and down Dallas’s freeways, past a series of bland billboards, and delivering pack ages to businesses, and she also moved with Helen to a new apartment in another Dallas suburb—the Pecan Knoll Apartments, in Garland—to be closer to Michelle and her family. (Peggy Jo’s sister, Nancy, was then living in East Texas; Peggy Jo and her brother, Pete, who had had disagreements in their younger years, were rarely speaking.)
Over the next couple of years, she endured her own medical problems. She injured her back and later underwent an emergency mastectomy, which kept her in bed for several weeks. She also began taking anti-anxiety medication, in large part because her income and her mother’s Social Security checks barely covered the bills, especially as her mother’s medical costs rose. “I think she was beginning to feel like she could never catch up,” said Cherry, who occasionally came down from Oklahoma City to visit. “And she was too proud to ask anyone for help. She liked helping people. She didn’t want people to help her.”
Cherry paused. “And there’s another thing that was going on with her,” she finally said. “This is hard to explain, but I think Peg was starting to feel, well, like her life was slipping away. Do you know what I mean? It’s the way women get sometimes. You get to a place in your life and you start looking back and you say to yourself that it’s not working out the way you hoped. You think everything is slipping away and you feel—I don’t know—crazy. You want to scream or something.”
Cherry paused again. “I think Peg missed being wild at heart.”
SHE HAD TO HAVE been scared out of her wits when she walked into American Federal in Irving in May 1991. Although a note-job bank robbery does not involve the same kind of drama as an old-fashioned bank heist, in which the robber tunnels through the walls and blows apart the vault, it is still an incredibly daring act, a very public performance that is not only witnessed by employees and customers but is also always caught on tape.
Amazingly, however, Peggy Jo did not commit any of the amateur mistakes that many first-time bank robbers make. She kept her head down so the security cameras could not get a good shot of her face. She did not fidget as the teller read her note. During those long seconds that ticked away as the teller pulled the money out of her drawer, she remained absolutely silent, saying nothing. Then came that long walk out of the bank, when she had to be wondering if a security guard she had not seen was coming up behind her, a gun in his hand. But she did not break into a run. Nor did she squeal away in her car, running red lights and drawing more attention to herself.
In fact, after the FBI’s Steve Powell interviewed bank employees and watched the surveillance tapes, he had no doubt that he was dealing with a professional bank robber. Powell, who grew up in the small Panhandle town of Tulia, eventually noticed that the robber had worn his cowboy hat backward. And he figured that the beard was fake. But it never occurred to him that the suspect wasn’t a man.
In December 1991 Peggy Jo, dressed in the same outfit, stole $1,258 from the Savings of America, which was also located in Irving. This time, an eyewitness was able to write down the license plate number of the Grand Prix. But when Powell’s agents tracked the license plate and converged on the owner’s home not far from the bank, they found a lady sitting in her living room who said she had not been out of the house that day. She took them outside to show them her car, which was a red Chevrolet. That’s when she noticed that the license plate was missing. Obviously, the FBI agents said, the bank robber had stolen the license plate earlier that day and put it on his own car to mislead them.
A month later, Peggy Jo struck again. This time, she moved to the other side of Dallas, hitting the Texas Heritage Bank in Garland for approximately $3,000. In May 1992 she robbed $5,317 from the Nations Bank in the adjoining suburb of Mesquite. During the robbery, she wisely handed back a stack of bills that contained a hidden dye pack, a small package that is triggered to explode a few seconds after it passes underneath an electronic eye positioned at a bank’s exit, staining the money with permanent ink and sometimes staining the robber himself.
By then, Powell had named the robber Cowboy Bob. “And he was making me start to pull my hair out,” he said. “How could this thin, little dried-up cowboy be whipping us this bad, time after time?”
In September 1992 Cowboy Bob robbed First Gibraltar Bank in Mesquite of $1,772. Police officers roared up in their squad cars, followed about ten minutes later by several vehicles filled with FBI agents. They tracked the license plate on Cowboy Bob’s car to a Mesquite resident who, predictably, went outside to his driveway to find his license plate missing.
Then, while agents were wrapping up their investigation at First Gibraltar, a call came in that Mesquite’s First Interstate Bank, about a mile away, had just been robbed by a man in a beard, a cowboy hat, a leather coat, and gloves. And he had hit the jackpot, escaping with $13,706. He was so pleased, the teller said, that he gave her a kind of salute as he left, tipping his hat with his gloved hand.
“Cowboy Bob is at it again!” shouted Powell, jumping into his car and racing toward First Interstate. “Son of a bitch!”
This time the license plate that an eyewitness saw on Cowboy Bob’s brown Pontiac Grand Prix was traced to a man named Pete Tallas. FBI agents found Tallas at work at a Ford auto parts factory in nearby Carrollton. “The agents asked me if I owned a Grand Prix with a certain license plate number, and I said, ‘That’s right,’” recalled Peggy Jo’s brother. “I told them I had given it to my mother and Peggy Jo a year or so back because they couldn’t afford a car. They said, ‘It was just used in a bank robbery.’ I said, ‘Bullshit, that car can’t go fast enough.’”
Pete gave the FBI the address of Helen and Peggy Jo’s apartment. When Powell and the other agents arrived, they spotted the car in the parking lot. As they discussed the possibility of storming the apartment and catching Cowboy Bob red-handed, they saw a woman in shorts and a T-shirt walk toward the car.
Powell stared at her. “It must be Cowboy Bob’s girlfriend,” he murmured to the other agents. They allowed her to drive away from the apartment so that the assumed boyfriend wouldn’t see them. When they finally stopped her around the corner, Powell introduced himself to the woman, who politely said hello and told him her name was Peggy Jo Tallas. She admitted that the car was hers, and she said she had driven it earlier that morning to a nursery to buy fertilizer. Powell opened the trunk of the car: There was, indeed, a bag of fertilizer. He asked her if he could look around her apartment. For a moment, just a brief moment, she paused. No one was in the apartment, she said, except for her sick mother.
Helen slowly eased herself out of her bed after she heard the doorbell ring and walked to the front door. She opened it and screamed as the FBI agents darted past her, their guns drawn. They moved into Peggy Jo’s bedroom. Her bed was immaculately made, and all of her clothes were hanging neatly in her closet.
“What the hell?” said one agent.
Then, looking on the top shelf in her closet, another agent saw the Styrofoam mannequin’s head with the beard pinned to it. He noticed the cowboy hat. When he looked under the bed, he saw a bag full of money.
“Come on, Peggy Jo, you’re hiding a man from us,” Powell said.
She gave him a look. “There isn’t any man,” she said. “I promise you that.”
Powell kept studying her. That’s when he noticed the spots of gray dye in her hair and the faint splotches of glue above her lip. “I’ll be damned,” he said as he pulled out his handcuffs. He read Peggy Jo her rights and drove her to the downtown FBI office, where other agents were waiting. “Gentlemen,” Powell said, “Cowboy Bob is actually Cowboy Babette.”
THE NEWSPAPERS, of course, had a field day, writing story after story about the cross-dressing bank robber who used her mother’s apartment as a hideout. The reporters hunted down Peggy Jo’s relatives, but they refused to say anything, in large part because they were so stunned about what Peggy Jo had been doing. “We had absolutely no idea,” Michelle said. “We asked Helen if she knew what Aunt Peggy had been doing, and she kept saying, ‘Robbing banks? Peggy was robbing banks?’”
Powell himself, realizing he had the case of a lifetime, did what he could to get Peggy Jo to talk. He wanted to know how she had learned to rob banks in the first place. He also wanted to know why she had decided to rob two banks in one day and why, before the second robbery, she didn’t take the time to steal another license plate. Had she gotten so cocky that she thought the FBI would never catch her? “If she had just followed her usual routine,” Powell later said, “we could still very well be wondering who Cowboy Bob really was.”
But Peggy Jo wouldn’t tell him anything. Nor would she say much to her court-appointed attorney, who then hired Richard Schmitt, a psychologist who specialized in evaluating criminals, to interview her. During their session, she eventually admitted that she had decided to rob a bank to pay for her mother’s medications. But she certainly had no intention of robbing a second bank, she said. Or a third or a fourth, she continued, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it.
Schmitt could not take his eyes off her. Up until that point, he had interviewed approximately fifty bank robbers, all of them male. He had never before interviewed what he described as “a nice, normal-looking woman” who crossed her legs while she talked with him. “So why did you keep robbing banks?” he asked her.
But Peggy Jo never answered. She kept staring at a wall, shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head as if she wasn’t sure what else to tell him.
“I guess it was hard for her to admit just how much fun she had being a bank robber,” Cherry said.
Perhaps because she carried out her crimes without using weapons—or perhaps because the judge agreed with the defense attorney’s argument that Peggy Jo’s behavior was “completely out of character”—she received a mild, 33-month sentence. Michelle later went to see her at the federal prison in Bryan. “I knew that she was unhappy, confined to a cell most of the day,” Michelle said. “But she came out smiling, and she asked me all about me and my daughter. She didn’t say anything to me about the bank robberies. She didn’t say a single word. She just said it was something that would never happen again.”
A true-crime author contacted Peggy Jo while she was in prison, asking her to collaborate on a book and perhaps sell it to Hollywood and make a lot of money, but she turned him down. “She told me she didn’t want to embarrass her family with more publicity,” Cherry said. “And I think she also was determined to put that part of her life behind her.”
Peggy Jo did try to put it behind her. By the mid-nineties she was out of prison and back living with her mother. To avoid the stares of their neighbors at the apartment complex, they moved to a two-bedroom townhome in Garland, 1,120 square feet in size, with a tiny backyard. She spent most of her time with her mother, whose hands by then were shaking so badly that she couldn’t hold her own silverware. Every night, she gave her mother a bath and put her to bed. Then Peggy Jo sat alone in her bedroom, usually watching nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel until late at night.
For a while she worked as a telemarketer, going to an office for a few hours a day and making cold calls, offering whoever answered the phone the opportunity to receive a catalog filled with lovely home decorative items. She later found a job as a cashier at the Harbor Bay Marina, at Lake Ray Hubbard, just outside Dallas, selling customers everything from coolers to minnows to those key chains that float in the water. “She was one of our best employees,” said Suzy Leslie, who was then a manager at the marina. “Not once did the money in the cash register come up short on her shift. And what I loved about Peggy Jo was that she checked on the poorer customers. She was constantly pulling out her own money to help some of the families pay for bait. She used to visit with a poor Vietnamese woman who came out here to fish off the docks for her family’s supper. There was a man who came out here who was deaf, and Peggy would write down questions on a sheet of paper, asking him if there was anything he needed. And I know she used to give some money to a man out here who had been in prison and was still down on his luck. One day I asked her why she did that, and she said, ‘Well, we all got a past, you know.’”
Occasionally, at the end of the day, some man at the marina would ask Peggy Jo if she’d like to join him for a cocktail at Weekends, a little restaurant nearby that had a dance floor next to the bar. But she’d turn him down. She’d tell him she needed to get back to her house to look after her mother. Maybe next time, she’d say, giving the man an apologetic smile. Then she’d sweep the floors, take one more stroll around the docks, watch the sun set, and head for her car.
Once again, a year passed, and then another. Peggy Jo lost touch with her old friends like Cherry and Karen. Her sister, Nancy, died of breast cancer, and in December 2002 Helen died in her sleep at the age of 83. Peggy Jo was at her mother’s bedside, holding her hand. “She could have put her mother in a nursing home a long time ago,” said Suzy, who by then had become close friends with Peggy Jo. “But when we talked up at the marina, she said to me that she wanted her mother to be at home, to live out her last years in dignity, sleeping in her own bed. She was relieved her mother was no longer in pain, yet you could tell she was still heartbroken. She couldn’t talk about Helen without tears coming to her eyes.”
At Helen’s funeral, Peggy Jo and her brother reconciled. She later went to the annual Christmas dinner that Pete and his wife put on for the Tallas family. “She was friendly to all of us, she loved on the kids, and when I asked her what she was going to do now, she said she had some plans,” Pete said. “But she never told me what they were.”
IN THE SPRING OF 2004 Peggy Jo approached a man at the marina who was selling a Frontier RV. She gave him $5,900 in cash and promised to pay him $500 more at a later date. She told Suzy that the time had come to move on. “She said she was going to put some money together and head down to Padre Island or to Mexico and live on the beach like she had always wanted to,” Suzy recalled. “She told me I ought to come along while I had the chance, before life ran out on us. I’ll never forget her saying that. ‘Before life ran out on us.’”
Peggy Jo sold or gave away all of the furniture in her townhome, and she sold an old Volvo she had been driving. She carried a few potted plants over to a neighbor’s front porch, and then she drove away in her RV—“Just flew the coop,” one neighbor later said. For a few weeks, she stayed at a public park near Lake Ray Hubbard, spending part of the day fishing or walking along the shore, watching the herons fly across the water. Occasionally, Michelle came out in the late afternoons to visit. She and Peggy Jo would sit on maroon folding chairs next to the RV. Peggy would drink Pepsi out of a coffee cup and smoke Merit menthol cigarettes, grinding them out in a little ashtray she held in her hand.
“Sometimes she’d turn on the radio and listen to old rock and roll from her younger days, groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger,” Michelle said. “She’d watch the sun set and then she’d go inside the RV and pull out a skillet and cook up some fajita meat with chopped onions. You know, it wouldn’t have been the life I would have chosen for myself, but I couldn’t help but admire her, doing her own thing and doing it her way. She loved being completely free.”
In the late summer of 2004, Peggy Jo left a telephone message for Carla Dunlap, another friend from the marina. When Carla had developed breast cancer the previous year, Peggy Jo had checked on her nearly every day and had brought her a cap to wear when her hair began to fall out from chemotherapy. “On the message, she asked how I was doing and she said she was about to hit the road,” Carla said. “And then she said, ‘And no matter what happens to me, always remember that I love you.’”
Concerned, Carla’s husband, John, drove out to the park to see if he could find her and perhaps give her some money, but she was already gone.
WHERE PEGGY JO WENT still remains the subject of great speculation. Months later, people would say that they had seen her at Lake Texoma and Lake Lavon. Others would say they had seen her driving her RV through various East Texas towns. And some would say they had seen her in Tyler in October 2004, right about the time that an odd bank robbery occurred at the small Guaranty Bank on the southern edge of the city. According to the tellers, the robber was an older man with a round stomach and a scraggly mustache; he wore a dark floppy hat, baggy clothes, and gloves. He placed a green canvas bag on the counter and said, “All your money. No bait bills. No blow-up money.” Then, after receiving a stack of cash (the authorities would not say exactly how much), he walked out of the bank and down a street. No one got a glimpse of his getaway vehicle.
One of the tellers did tell FBI agents that she was struck by the softness of the robber’s voice; it sounded a bit feminine. What’s more, the teller said, the robber’s mustache appeared to have been glued on, and his stomach looked more padded than real.
Perhaps if Steve Powell was still working for the FBI, he might have had an idea who had committed the robbery. But by then he was retired, living on a ranch outside Lubbock, occasionally teaching seminars to bank employees about how to spot a bank robber. At the end of each seminar, he’d pass around a photo of Cowboy Bob and tell her story with a certain relish, like a man reminiscing about his first lover.
The agents who were investigating this robbery, however, brought in an older male suspect to take a lie detector test. After he passed with flying colors, they began investigating other men. If they had been told that their suspect was a sixty-year-old spinster who drove an RV with pretty purple curtains, they would have laughed out loud.
Peggy Jo’s own family certainly had no suspicions that she had returned to her secret life. Periodically, throughout the fall of 2004 and the early months of 2005, she would call them from pay phones, telling them she was doing just fine. One afternoon, Michelle ran into Peggy Jo at a Wal-Mart in Garland where Peggy Jo was picking up supplies—a couple cartons of cigarettes, some paper towels, and fajita meat. “She seemed to be in great spirits,” Michelle said. And this past May—May 4, to be exact—Pete happened to be in Kaufman County, east of Dallas, when he heard that Peggy Jo’s RV was parked next to a small lake on a farm owned by a relative. “I drove out to see her, and we spent about an hour together,” Pete said. “She pulled out a bunch of family photos from a big old box, and we looked at all of them. I’ve got to tell you, we had a really good time, the two of us. Then she told me she was going to be packing up shortly and leaving, hitting the road, going on one of her adventures. I said, ‘You okay, Peggy Jo?’ And she hugged me and said she was happy, and then I said, ‘See you later.’”
THE NEXT MORNING, Peggy Jo woke up and made her bed, smoothing out the wrinkles in the sheets and spreading a fake sheepskin blanket over the mattress, making sure the bottom edge of the blanket was as straight as a ruler. Nearby, hanging from two wooden rods, were her nicer clothes: a few pairs of blue jeans, a couple pairs of khaki pants, and six blouses, all of them neatly ironed. But on this particular morning, she put on a black long-sleeved shirt and a pair of black pants that she kept in a plastic drawer. From a shelf, she grabbed a sandwich baggie filled with makeup and applied some lipstick and rouge to her face, and she ran a brush through her graying hair. She looked at herself in a mirror that she kept on another shelf, right next to some photos of young children with freckles and lopsided grins—her grandnieces and grandnephews—and she then made her way to the front of the RV, where she kept a variety of sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats along with a couple of black wigs and hair extensions.
After choosing a large black straw hat that came down over her forehead and a pair of black sunglasses that practically covered the top half of her face, Peggy Jo slipped into the driver’s seat and drove to Tyler, parking her RV next to a Jack in the Box, which happened to be across the street from Guaranty Bank, the very bank that had been robbed the previous October. Holding a black satchel, she stood at the street corner waiting for the traffic light to change; then she headed for the bank. She walked through the front door, past a sign in the lobby that read “You Need the Right Tools to Build Your Dreams,” and said to the teller, “This is a robbery. I need all of your money. Don’t set any alarms.”
The teller, a young woman barely out of her teens, gave Peggy Jo everything she had in her drawer: $11,241. Peggy Jo’s heart had to have started racing. This was big. This was like the robbery back in Mesquite in 1992. All she had to do was get out of there and head south, and she could finally get to Mexico and start her new life on a beach.
In her haste to get away, however, she made one simple mistake. She didn’t check for a dye pack. It exploded as soon as she walked out the door, covering the money with red ink. A plume of red smoke also began to rise from the satchel as she headed back across the street, dodging traffic to get to her RV.
The smoking satchel caught the attention of a TXU crew working in cherry-picking buckets above the street. A young Tyler couple named Chris and Courtney Smith, who were driving away with their children from a nearby Wal-Mart, also saw Peggy Jo. Because of her disguise, however, they couldn’t tell whether they were watching a woman or a man dressed as a woman. “I bet that person robbed a bank,” Courtney said, dialing 911 on her cell phone while Chris whipped the car around to follow Peggy Jo, ordering the children in the backseat to keep their heads down.
It just so happened that a group of FBI agents and Tyler police officers were out in their cars that very morning, cruising the streets. They literally were searching for bank robbers. Three banks had been robbed recently in the Tyler area, and the authorities believed that two or three young black men were the robbers.
As a matter of fact, when the police radios crackled with the news about Guaranty Bank, Jeff Millslagle, the burly senior agent in charge of the FBI’s Tyler office, had just begun to interview a young black man in the northern part of the city who had been caught driving a stolen car. Millslagle and other FBI agents raced south in their unmarked SUVs. Officers from the Tyler Police Department also came roaring toward the bank, their sirens screaming, as did state troopers from the Department of Public Safety.
Within minutes, a posse of law enforcement officers and such curious citizens as Chris and Courtney Smith and their children were right behind Peggy Jo as she headed down the highway. Because the RV was going up a hill, it was not able to get above the speed limit. Its gears grinding, it lumbered past the Colonial Hills Baptist Church, the Heritage Baptist Church, a movie theater, and a skating rink. Exhaust billowed out of the tailpipe and floated over a field of bluebonnets blooming in the highway’s median.
Peggy Jo made one last-ditch attempt to get away, suddenly hitting the brakes and turning the RV into a quiet, middle-class subdivision at the edge of the city. She immediately turned again, onto the poetically named Irish Moss Drive. Before she could get to the end of that street, however, a couple of police cars raced past the RV, boxing it in. Officers in bulletproof vests leaped out of their cars, some holding handguns, a few holding rifles. One officer crouched near an azalea bush; another bent down behind a tree. One of the residents on Irish Moss Drive grabbed his video camera and stood in his doorway to film whatever was going to happen next.
The truth was that no one was exactly sure who was in the RV. The police dispatcher had reported that the bank robber was possibly a white female, but the officers could not rule out that the robber was one of their black suspects who had disguised himself as a woman. Nor could they rule out the possibility that other members of the bank-robbing gang were inside the RV, all of them wielding guns.
Minutes ticked by. Because the curtains were pulled across the windows, the officers were unable to see inside. Some of those close to the RV were saying the things that officers always say in such situations. “Come on out, now.” “You’re surrounded.” “Just make it easy on yourself.”
From what could later be determined, she sat at the RV’s little kitchen table, smoking a Merit, the smoke drifting from her nostrils. On the floor next to the table was her black satchel, the money useless, almost all of it stained red. A couple of feet away from the satchel was her fishing pole, and beside the pole was her box of family photos.
Who knows what she thought about during those moments? Surely she had to have realized that she was facing a long prison sentence. Maybe, if she was lucky, she would get a couple of hours a day in a prison yard where she could feel the sun against her face. Maybe, if she was lucky, she would be released before she died.
A few more minutes passed.
Finally, Peggy Jo went back to her bedroom, where a .357 Magnum loaded with hollow point bullets was hidden underneath a pillow. But she didn’t touch that gun. Instead, she picked up a toy pistol that she also kept in the bedroom. She had bought it, apparently, to carry with her in case she ever needed to threaten a bank employee in a future robbery.
She walked to the door and opened it, her hands at her side. The police officers who had surrounded the RV could not believe what they were seeing: an unassuming woman in a wide-brimmed hat. A woman who was the age of their grandmothers.
“You’re going to have to kill me,” she said.
“Ma’am, you don’t have to do this,” replied one of the officers, a young man who would later be advised by his superiors to seek counseling for the guilt that would haunt him.
“You mean to tell me if I come out of here with a gun and point it at y’all, you’re not going to shoot me?”
“Please don’t. Please don’t do that,” yelled another officer.
But then she took a step out of the RV, and from the doorway her hand emerged, holding the toy pistol. Just as she began to lower it, four officers fired, the sound of the shots echoing off the surrounding houses and Peggy Jo’s RV.
The bullets came at her all at once, hitting her at nearly the same time, and she didn’t even stagger. She fell forward, like a stalk of celery being snapped.
Once she hit the ground, however, she somehow found the strength to pull off her sunglasses. For a moment, she lifted her head. That May morning, the light was like honey. A soft breeze blew across the yard. From somewhere came the sound of pigeons cooing. Peggy Jo looked up at the dense new foliage of a sweet gum tree that rose above her. Then she closed her eyes and died.
STILL ASSUMING that accomplices were in the RV, a police SWAT team shot tear gas canisters through the windows and stormed through the front door, stepping over her fishing pole and box of photos and turning toward the bedroom. They stared at the bed, still perfectly made up, and at a couple of glass dolphin sculptures on the windowsill. After the “all clear” was announced, one officer found a small baggie of marijuana and another officer found her purse, which contained $38 in cash and her driver’s license. The FBI’s Millslagle ran a records check and realized that the dead woman was none other than Cowboy Bob. He called Steve Powell at his ranch and left him a message, saying he had some bad news about his old nemesis.
Powell called back. “Say it ain’t so,” he said almost wistfully.
“Yeah, I’m afraid we killed Peggy Jo,” Millslagle said.
For the FBI, of course, the biggest question was how many other banks had Peggy Jo robbed. Some agents wondered if she had tried a bank robbery or two back in the sixties, when she was a freewheeling young woman tooling around Dallas in her burgundy Fiat. Others wondered if she had begun her career in the seventies, when she had been caught stealing the pickup. It is not an uncommon practice, after all, for a bank robber to avoid detection by using a stolen car as a getaway vehicle and then later abandoning it. Still others wondered if she had returned to robbing banks soon after her release from prison. After studying the evidence from the October 2004 robbery at Guaranty Bank, Millslagle did conclude that Peggy Jo was the robber. But that only led to other questions. Why had she gone back to that bank? Was she imitating her heroes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who had once robbed the same train twice? And why didn’t she dress as a man for that second Guaranty robbery? Why also did she decide to speak to the teller instead of handing the teller a note? Was she hoping that FBI agents would study the bank’s surveillance tapes and realize she had returned?
Meanwhile, newspaper and television reporters once again hunted down Peggy Jo’s relatives. But they stayed silent. “I didn’t know what to tell them,” said Pete, who’s now retired and living in Plano. “I mean, none of it made the slightest bit of sense. Surely Peggy Jo had to know that if she was in some kind of financial jam again, we would have helped her out.”
About thirty members of the Tallas family and a few of Peggy Jo’s friends gathered at the Kaufman city cemetery for a private burial service. In an impromptu eulogy, Michelle told a story about Peggy Jo’s adopting a wounded duck at the marina and naming it Bernice. One of Michelle’s brothers read some Scripture and then said, “I am certain that in the few minutes leading up to her death, as she sat in her RV contemplating her fate, Peg was making peace with God.”
There was a long silence. Michelle and Karen covered their faces with their hands and wept. “Okay, I guess we’re done,” said Pete, nodding at the undertaker, walking away before anyone could see the strain on his face.
Cherry Young, still living in Oklahoma, wasn’t at the funeral. She didn’t hear about Peggy Jo’s death until August, when she called Pete to catch up. “There still isn’t a night that goes by that I don’t wake up and think about her,” Cherry said. “Sometimes I can’t get over the sadness that she’s gone. But then I think about her walking out of that bank, sixty years old, that bag full of money, and I have to say that she went out doing what she loved. We’ll never understand it, but she was doing exactly what she loved. I wish I could write her a note and say, ‘Good for you, my sweet Peg. Good for you.’”